Imaginations of Translation

Guest book review by Paschalis Nikolaou

Transfiction: Research into the Realities of Translation FictionEdited by Klaus Kaindl and Karlheinz Spitzl.

Early on in this exciting collection of essays originating from the 1st International Conference on Fictional Translators in Literature and Film, held in September 2011 at the University of Vienna, one of the editors, Klaus Kaindl, registers why we now see so much evidence of the age-old relationship between translation and writing creatively: a ‘transposition from the textual to the social sphere turned translation into a key concept for describing social processes, particularly of today’s globalization’ (p. 2); before agreeing with Dirk Delabatista that we are now dealing with a ‘master metaphor’. This volume is a thorough investigation into the use of ‘translation-related phenomena’ in fiction, and at the same time draws on an impressive range of theoretical work in translation studies and beyond – including Susan Bassnett, Sherry Simon, Michael Cronin and not least previous publications, such as the 2005 special issue of Linguistica Antverpiensa on ‘Fictionalizing Translation and Multilingualism’. What becomes very clear, very soon, is that a lot has been written since Cervantes and Borges, and that through books published just in the past decade by authors like Leila Aboulela, Jacques Gélat, Jean Paul Fosset, Hans-Ulrich Möhring, Olivier Balazuc and Jean Kwok, a ‘translational identity’ is not merely poignantly understood, but intensified in reflection.

The volume itself playfully contributes to the contexts it engages, from the motto (All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental) to the four sections being called ‘episodes’ (‘Entering theoretical territories’, ‘Travelling through sociocultural space’, ‘Experiencing agency and action’, ‘Carrying function into effect’). Given the nature of the thing investigated, a dizzying choice of methodological approaches and perspectives naturally transcends the editors’ attempts at orienting the reader: in fact, Transfiction can be best savoured at the level of individual chapter titles: Brian James Baer considers ‘Interpreting Daniel Stein: Or what happens when fictional translators get translated’ (pp. 157-175); Marija Todorova looks into both novelistic and autobiographical accounts in ‘Interpreting conflict: Memories of an interpreter’ (pp. 221-231); Alice Cesarini observes a ‘Magical mediation: The role of translation and interpreting in the narrative world of Harry Potter’ (pp. 329-344). 

And the other nineteen essays contribute to the extensive use of those ‘frames of reference’ (extratextual and intratextual levels, and no less than five different ‘narrative functional categories’) that Kaindl’s ‘Introduction’ anticipates. In her contribution to the first ‘episode’, Fotini Apostolou locates traces of the philosophical past and openings into literary creation in a short story (Todd Hasak-Lowy’s ‘The Task of This Translator’, 2005), which transplants Walter Benjamin’s well known essay of nearly the same title into present reality while questioning boundaries between genres, between originals and translations. In one of two essays discussing Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated (2002), Sabine Strümper-Krobb examines the way different narrative strands are connected by a translator figure, Alex Perchov, one of the novel’s two protagonists. As a key element of the plot, translation encounters writing (and writer, since Perchov proceeds to compose letters to an equally fictitious Jonathan Safran Foer) in a quest for ‘mediation, remembering, witnessing’ (see pp. 254-58). Michelle Woods’s essay considers the case of Willa Muir’s unpublished 1930s novel Mrs Muttoe and the Top Storey, in fact an ‘autobiographical fictionalization, or factionalization, of her experiences translating Feuchtwanger and Kafka’ (p. 289); and all the more important because it offers a ‘portrait of female identity, threatened by the bind of patriarchy, that is strengthened via the act of translation’ (ibid.). One of the most interesting pieces is arguably saved for last, with Monika Wozniak surveying images of translation and translators in science fiction novels and films. She emerges with substantial detail, both considering the limited space one is assigned in an edited volume and the enormity of material available to her, from H. G. Wells to Star Trek: The Next Generation. Thus it would be exciting to eventually see such a discussion extend to include soon-to-be-released features like Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival.

Transfiction is edited with a passion and close understanding of the issues involved, as well as the possibilities beyond; it will not be the final word in a growing field of study, but we may already count it among the key publications on the manifold ways in which, as Patricia Godbout puts it somewhere in the second ‘episode’ of this volume, the reader’s attention now shifts ‘from the translator as character to translation itself as a fictional motif’ (p. 186). It is a fine recent addition to John Benjamins ever-reliable Translation Library (BTL), and one that should be consulted by Translation Studies scholars, by translators of literature and, not least, by creative writers: the book is a host of novel ideas (pun intended).

Paschalis Nikolaou

Transfiction: Research into the Realities of Translation Fiction. Edited by Klaus Kaindl and Karlheinz Spitzl. 2014, Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company [Benjamins Translation Library 110], ISBN 978-90-272-5850-2, pp. 373.

To see a list of books where translators and translation are fictionalised click here.

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